A hotline seems, by its very nature, urgent. It’s a call that needs action as soon as possible.
The state auditor general says that is not happening with one hotline, putting kids in need in a potentially dangerous position.
On Tuesday, Eugene DePasquale announced that an audit of ChildLine, the state hotline for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, shows that thousands of calls about child abuse were not acted upon.
“Our report shows the results of that failure — 42,000 unanswered calls in 2015,” he said in a statement.
ChildLine was created in 1975 and is operated by the Department of Human Services. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, taking calls and routing them to the proper counties.
In recent years, including since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal rocked Pennsylvania in 2011, call volumes have increased.
“While strengthening laws to combat child abuse was a critical achievement, not providing the funding to enforce those laws was a disturbing failure,” DePasquale said.
The findings require immediate action, he said. This is the third time an audit has prompted his office to take such steps, issuing an interim report, since he took office in 2013.
“The critical problems our audit team has found so far simply cannot wait even another few months until this audit is finished,” he said. “DHS and ChildLine officials need to take corrective action immediately to save children’s lives.”
In Centre County, those calls are routed to Julia Sprinkle’s staff at Children and Youth Services.
“We are notified as soon as there is a report. If we don’t act within a certain amount of time, ChildLine calls us,” she said.
Sprinkle said there is no set amount of time it can take to respond to a report. Response time can vary based on a number of situations, she said, including prioritization of the kind of situation in question and when it is received.
“If it’s 10 p.m., and we believe the child is safe, there is no sense causing additional stress to the child. Or, given a certain situation, we might want to interview the child in a neutral location,” Sprinkle said.
There was one point where she was adamant.
“All of the calls are answered within 24 hours in Centre County,” she said. “All of them.”
In 2014 and 2015, DePasquale said ChildLine received a total of 353,268 calls. Some were answered. Others were listed as abandoned, meaning the caller terminated the call while waiting. Others were “deflected,” meaning that more than 30 calls were queued in the system and additional calls were terminated automatically.
In 2015, that 42,000 number reflected both abandoned and deflected calls, something DePasquale called “alarming and unconscionable.”
“Any single one of those unanswered calls could have been a life-or-death situation, and even one neglected or abused child in the commonwealth is too many,” he said.
Another third of all calls in the two-year period did not result in trackable reports.
Over the past three years, keepkidssafe.pa.gov shows 24 changes to the Child Protective Services Law, many related to reporting and mandated reporters.
DePasquale’s audit shows that DHS has trouble keeping enough caseworkers for the job.
“Lawmakers voted for this legislation but did not provide the funding necessary to effectively enforce it, while DHS should have been unrelenting in its demand of adequate resources,” he said.
He acknowledged progress had been made since his audit began.
That full audit is slated to continue with a final report due at the end of 2016.